The Limits of Our Language

Today marks the day of Pentecost in the Christian calendar (something I had forgotten). At the day of Pentecost, the gathered disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit. When they emerged and began to speak to the assembled people who were attending the feast, they were able to speak in multiple languages. Jews from around the Mediterranean had gathered in Jerusalem who would have all had different dialects and languages. The gift of speaking languages was given to the Disciples so they could spread the Gospel message throughout the world. The language of the Gospel was no longer Hebrew, but Aramaic, Greek, Assyrian, Latin, etc. In short, the Gospel became the worlds language.

But we have lost that gift.

This morning, I attended the early morning service at my church via Zoom. When the early service restarted, the M.O. that was set out that it would be primarily be for preaching, something we could invite interested people to in order to show them Gods love. That has not happened for a variety of reasons (I mean, would you join a Zoom call with a load of strangers?) but one that concerns me is that we do not have the ability to speak other languages.

By other languages, I do not mean foreign ones, like French, German, Mandarin etc. h. But as a church we have lost (or perhaps never had) the ability to speak a language that is recognisable to the people we preach to. We speak English yes, but our words are often so unintelligible that anyone without a theology degree would not understand what on earth we were talking about.

Some mornings are a prime example of the problem. Had anyone who wasn’t already a Christian joined, they would have been left completely outside the discussion by all of the terminology used. But its not just the terminology. There’s an attitude to it as well, as if we automatically assume everyone in the conversation is already in the know and speaks the language. Its hopeless as a preaching exercise, and speaks to a larger problem in that we are unable to preach effectively.

One of the problems that communities can have is that they can become unintentionally hostile to outsiders. The more we get used to only speaking internally to other members of the group, the more we develop ways of communicating independent of the outside world. This becomes a problem from anyone outside the group who tries to join the conversation. They lack the same grounding in the language, so they feel they cannot take part in the conversation.

This is partly a result of the increased secularisation of the world, where fewer people have regular contact with Christians using heavily Christian terminology. But its something that some Christian groups (including my own) have failed to address. We have not adapted to new surroundings. The problem is that we expect the world to come to us, whilst simultaneously building walls that outsiders cannot breach. Rather than being a welcoming environment, Christianity becomes a fortress.

You’d think that this would provide Christians the opportunity to self-reflect and adapt their approach to a changing world, and to their credit some churches have been doing just that. But others have struggled to break the cycle. Unfortunately, many Christians believe that declining membership is a sign of the coming Kingdom of God, that it’s the sign of an increasingly Godless world that needs saving. This means that many Christians see their declining numbers as something preordained and beyond their control, rather than something of their own making and that they have a responsibility to try and fix. We retreat further into our little comfort bubble, because blaming outsiders is easy and challenging ourselves is hard.

It also doesn’t help the members on the inside either. When we went on youth days or weekends, we could easily identify the kids who had been sheltered from anything considered too worldly, because they struggled to interact with anyone outside the scope of talking about their favourite Bible verse. And that’s with kids who might know what they are talking about!

So, this Pentecost, we need to consider how we can change ourselves to communicate better. Gods word and gospel are wonderful things, and we have a responsibility to not just preach, but preach effectively. And, as uncomfortable as that may be, we have to think about the words we use and the way we use them.

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